COLUMBIA, S.C. — The U.S. Department of Justice is pressing federal regulators to come up with a way of keeping inmates from using cellphones in the nation’s prisons.

In a letter obtained Thursday by The Associated Press, Assistant Attorney General Beth Williams told the Federal Communications Commission that addressing the security threat posed by contraband cellphones “should be a chief priority” of both the FCC and Justice, which oversees the federal Bureau of Prisons.

The letter follows an appeal from South Carolina’s prisons director to Attorney General Jeff Sessions in June, beseeching the top prosecutor for help pursuing FCC permission to jam cell signals of the phones, which are thrown over fences, smuggled by errant employees, even delivered by drone. South Carolina Gov. Henry McMaster also lobbied, writing Sessions an August memo on the dangers of prison cellphones and thanking him for any help he could provide.

A decades-old law says federal officials can grant permission to jam the public airwaves only to federal agencies, not state or local ones. Telecommunications companies are opposed, saying jamming cell signals could set a bad precedent and interfere with legal cell users nearby.

Corrections Director Bryan Stirling told AP on Thursday he has twice briefed Sessions on the security threats posed by the phones, most recently during a meeting in Charleston two weeks ago about public safety issues.

“I cannot thank the Department of Justice enough for this,” Stirling said.

Stirling has been among the most vocal corrections directors in the country to speak out about how dangerous the phones can be in the hands of prisoners. Last year, he took now-FCC Chairman Ajit Pai on a tour of a South Carolina prison to show him first-hand the benefit of technologies like jamming, which render cell signals useless.

Earlier this year, Stirling testified at an FCC hearing in Washington alongside a former South Carolina corrections officer who was nearly killed by a hit that was orchestrated by an inmate using an illegal phone. In July, an inmate was able to escape from a maximum-security South Carolina prison, in part thanks to help from a smuggled cellphone. Jimmy Causey was recaptured three days later in Texas.

In her letter, Williams gave other examples: A Tennessee inmate using a smuggled phone to upload child porn images; a North Carolina inmate calling in a hit on a prosecutor’s father.

Pai has signaled that the FCC is willing to work with states on the issue. In March, after taking testimony from Stirling and Capt. Robert Johnson, commissioners voted 3-0 to approve rules to streamline the process for using technology to detect and block contraband phones in prisons and jails across the country.


Kinnard can be reached at http://twitter.com/MegKinnardAP. Read more of her work at http://bigstory.ap.org/content/meg-kinnard/